The magic of Cuenca: A city filled with stories, each beginning with the last line of the one just ended
I spent the entirety of one day last week visiting with old friends and enjoying the parade of people strolling by my traditional haunt, Casa Azul Galeria Cafe on San Sebastian Plaza. I arrived shortly after noon for lunch and left for dinner at Raymond Huntley’s superb restaurant, Osaka Ramen, on the opposite side of the plaza, somewhere beyond early evening.
It was great fun visiting with the dear friends who define my earliest days here and to recall the many who helped make this place the home I had sought for so many years.
The most common refrain I heard from my long-time pals is how surprised they are to see so many new expats, complete with their rose-tinted lenses and mouths gaping in awe. That describes me when I was new here; I was mesmerized. I felt that Cuenca was as close to heaven as I was ever going to get.
I learned some valuable lessons in my six-year residency in southern Ecuador and I would like to share some with you.
Expect the kindness of strangers to embrace you.
I am constantly awestruck by Cuencanos’ sense of “do unto others” as a way of life. My favorite example, mainly because it happened to me, is this:
While taking photographs of the floral arrangements and candies displayed in the flower market for the feast of Corpus Christi, I tripped over a small traffic barricade. I careened into a pile of just-emptied pastry boxes, corkscrewing myself into a soft landing celebrated by a gushing cloud of powdered sugar.
The sound of my crashing caught the attention of shoppers. The result was typically Ecuadorian.
Twelve folks rushed to help me. Of that number, five felt every inch of my body, checking to see if I was bleeding, had broken anything, or showed apparent signs of injury, while another five pushed and pulled as they maneuvered to get me to my feet. None of this interrupted the final two, who, having surveyed the scene, pointed out to me the barricade I tripped over while reminding me, repeatedly, to be sure to watch where I was walking in the future.
Every person was genuinely concerned for my well-being. I believe you can expect the same.
Occasionally, Ecuadorians will promise what they cannot deliver. You might hear, “Don’t worry! My cousin and I will be there right on time tomorrow and will install your new liver in under an hour!”
But alas, it does not come to pass. The desire to be of service sometimes exceeds the ability to perform.
Truly, it is the thought that counts, and I have found that in times of real crisis, when you need immediate help, you can depend on your neighbors to help you.
You can expect the weather to change.
I was greeted one morning with a soggy blanket of seemingly unrelenting rain. So, it should have come as no surprise when glorious sunny skies barged in with glaring finality by mid-day. I fumbled with my umbrella and oversized raincoat until well into the evening. The next day was different. An unannounced express train of clouds barreled into town, spilling a monsoon from which I could not escape. I had to slog through the entire day wearing squeaky canvas shoes that squirted a trail of my misery with every step.
The following day I was properly prepared. I had a small umbrella tucked into my satchel for the rain and a hat to protect my bald head from sunburn.
The weather in Cuenca is always changing. You can expect perfect weather almost every day, just not all day; brief sprinkles and gentle breezes might highlight the morning while fronting thunderous afternoon downpours certain to overflow creeks and sidewalks. However, when the sun retires and the evening takes over and goes to work, it is not uncommon to hear the remark, “My, it was a lovely day.”
You can expect to be dazzled.
The sheer range of beauty is so ever-present it is nearly impossible to take in the perspective it deserves. One quickly learns to be out as much as possible to see as much as possible because there is always something wondrous right around the corner. Expect to be awestruck. Expect to lose direction and wander neighborhoods without street signs; time and weather chipped those away many years ago. They have never been replaced because they are no longer needed. The names are chiseled into the collective memory of generations.
Expect to get lost … and that is a good thing. Cuenca is a walking city. Wear sensible shoes.
If you walk a couple of blocks from the principal streets, the brassy motorbikes and snarling street traffic will give way to softer melodies.
Listen! A young boy is being called home because dinner is waiting, a dad is greeting his children as he returns from work at the hardware store, and a child is reminded to pick up a dozen rolls from the bakery right away; it will be closing soon.
Listen! The songs of life resonate; it is the spirit of a people who have called this place home and woven themselves into its fabric since forever.
Stand before the pink marble blocks of the Humiliation Cross in front of San Sebastian Church. There was a time when if you committed a crime, you would be marched here and tied to the base of the cross to suffer the withering punishment administered by your community.
Imagine the remorse and shame.
Imagine the absolution and redemption that follows when you are again welcomed into the community.
Ponder the meaning of suffering and sanctity.
Wonder on the shards of light piercing the clouds overlooking the plaza after a splinter of rain.
Expect magic to embrace you.
You might suffer some cranky old expat who has been here for a spell who will try to throw shade, “Just let me tell you a thing or two….”
I have yet to meet a single open-minded person who does not like Cuenca. Most use the word, love. Every person I have met has a story of some serendipitous event that benefitted them greatly, and I believe it. Cuenca is magical; it is a city that sings its eternal song of stories, each story beginning with the last line of the story just ended.
I’ll wager that if you embrace the symphony of changing tides, strive to be productive, and insert yourself wholeheartedly into this fascinating and complex culture; you will find contentment in the Athens of the Andes.